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August 2009

My Destiny

IMG_0089 If you read this blog and think I do nothing but cruise around the State looking for local places to eat, you'd be partially right, only I have lived here so long that I know where many of them are already.  Passing through Winston-Salem today on my way back from Asheville, I couldn't resist stopping at an old haunt of mine: George's Grecian Corner Restaurant, a place I have eaten at for 25 years.

In the early years I would see George himself in the kitchen giving orders to others of Greek descent (his sons?), but lately I have not seen him, and the folks in the kitchen don't appear to be Greek but of some more recent immigrant wave.  Yet the food has remained the same --- tasty souvlaki, gyros, and chopped salads with excellent blue cheese dressing. There's more, but that's what I always eat.

George's is a small place.  Today when I visited I had to wait for a table, but it was worth it.  While waiting I perused the framed memorabilia on the wall (which I have seen many times) of the restaurant when it served as a set for scenes in the 1990 movie "Mr. Destiny," which starred James Belushi, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Caine.  In a story somewhat reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life," Belushi, who is convinced that his life would be much different (and better) had he not missed a hit in a high school baseball game, meets a stranger who offers to let him live that life.  Only he discovers that it's not what he idealized.  When I first saw the movie, I didn't know George's had been used as a set, but I recognized it immediately, even shorn of its sign and decorated differently.

As I ate my lunch today, I remembered another storied restaurant in Winston-Salem that used to be just blocks away from George's, the Rose and Thistle.  It was a very laid back, bohemian sort of pizza parlor, with plenty of old magazines to read and plenty of interesting people to watch, and it was a date place in the early years of my relationship with my wife.

Another thing I like about George's (beyond the food) is the clientele.  These are not the noveau rich or the college crowd, but they are blue-collar and middle class and old upper class Winston-Salem folks that need not act like they are rich but will eat good food wherever they find it.  I'm eating alone, but I don't feel alone.  These are my people.  These are like my parents' friends.  They are the people I grew up with.

George's is not a pretty place, as you can see.  The odd, octagonal building sits practically under the freeway.  I used to worry that a truck would lose control and come careening through the roof, wrecking my meal.  Yet it hasn't happened yet.  If you need a restroom, you have to go outside and enter the single, unisex restroom from the exterior.  I suspect this lack of indoor facilities is grandfathered under the health codes.  But pretty doesn't matter much.  Like people, it's what's inside that counts, and the soul of George's is welcoming and good.

I didn't have to stop at George's.  It's not the fastest way through Winston-Salem any longer.  (It's on I-40 Business at the Cloverdale Rd. exit, in the shadow of Baptist Hospital.) But places that remind you of home, that have history, that have people who you like hearing talk because they sound like home --- those places are worth a detour.  Remembering them, I guess, is my destiny.

Bending Toward Eternity

1969CamaroSS "Except ye become as little children, except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, "ye cannot enter the kingdom of God." One must not only die daily, but every day we must be born again.”  (Dorothy L. Sayers)

There's not much in a birthday, I have often said.  After all, you're just one day older than the day before.  Any yet that's not necessarily true about my fiftieth birthday.

Since turning fifty, I've become aware of how often I refer to the past.  There are, after all, likely many more years behind me than in front of me, more stories to tell than new memories to make.  Part of growing older is remembering well and learning from those memories.  If I'm wise at all (and I have no comment on that), it is because of a discernment and prudence shaped by experience, that vast reservoir of past choices, both good and bad.  In hindsight, many of the results of the bad choices seem humorous, while they may have been devastating at the time.

For example, I learned early on that you don't anticipate when your traffic light will turn green by watching the yellow and then red light of cross-traffic.  I'm 16, you see, and I have a carload of teenage guys with me, and I'm stopped at a traffic light next to a similar carload of teenage girls.  (Can you imagine the conversation?)  I'm thinking I'll put rubber on the road when my light changes to green, goaded on by a backseat of professional stock car driver wannabes, and I do. . . only my light is not green.  Realizing this in the middle of the intersection, I slam on the brakes, put my steaming Camaro muscle car in reverse, and sheepishly back up next to the carload of teenage girls, now quaking with laughter.  Everyone in the backseat disappeared into the floorboards.  Even my car seemed to shrink beneath me, its embarassment palpable. 

That was a dark day in my short teenage life.  But I did learn something about friends, about the foolishness of trying to impress women, and, of course, about traffic lights.  Like I said, it seems funny now, a story I tell my kids for the moral lesson it offers as well as to allow them to believe, if for a moment, the incredible idea that once their father existed as a teenager.

Another thing about the past is that the more distance I put between the present me and the former me, the closer it seems, as if time is a malleable piece of tin foil that can be bent back upon itself, present touching past.  If I say I graduated from high school 33 years ago, it seems difficult to believe, and yet some of the memories of my senior year are crystal clear.  I easily summon up images, sounds, and smells of my school --- remembering the snapping- tapping sound of the flagpole rope in the wind outside the open window of my geometry class, the high-pitched voice of the fearsome-little-man-who-still-lived-with-his-mother teacher who ruled trigonometry class, and the embarrassment when my girlfriend at the end of a crowded hallway called to me at the other end of the hall and all eyes turned my way.  That me and this me are not so far apart, really.

And yet, while remembering is good to the extent it offers wisdom and thankfulness as we see God's providential ordering of our lives, today is where I live and tomorrow is where I'm going.  That present focus is evident when Jesus says that "sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:34) or when Paul exhorts us to forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13-14).  Just as the past is not so far behind, eternity is with us even now.  As we bend forward we even touch it at times, sensing that something timeless has happened, something that is not just now but a part of a coming greater reality --- the real Real, if you will.  Everything that has happened to me is really a  part of everything that will happen, a part of who I am and will remain in eternity.  It's comforting to me to know that all that I am, all the memories that make up the person that I am, will stay with me, redeemed, somehow seen through new eyes, but that in eternity I'm still me --- the awkward high schooler and the (God willing) elderly curmudgeon.

I'm the kid who failed at impressing girls.  I get to carry that memory with me.  What was devastatingly embarrassing then is funny now.  What is funny now will be deeply meaningful in some larger context God may reveal in eternity.  I can't wait.

Gurney's Key: A Story

Medium.1.7078 "I told Gurney not to go down there.  I told 'em that house was spooked, full of ghosts.  Wouldn't listen, though.  Had a mind of his own, I 'spect."

"Well, Ms. Virginia, we've looked all over that house.  We can't find no trace of him.  It's like he disappeared into thin air."

"They took 'em.  That's what I reckon.  And now he's stuck somewhere, just aching to get back, just a pinin' for home.  Ain't nothing to be done about it, neither, lessen you can find the key."

"What key?"

"Why, the blasted key that got him into this mess.  Gurney was rootin' around in the attic, though I warned him not to, and he found it up there.  Been lost ever since my pappy put it away up there.  Said it caused enough trouble."

Jack Daly slipped his hat off and scratched his head.  He was tired, and hot, beads of sweat rolling down his forehead.  He took out his handkerchief and shook it, wiping his forehead before tucking it back in his pocket.  Just what he needed.  Some crazy woman talking about spooks and a magic key and people being stuck on the other side.

"Jimmy. . ."

"It's Jack, Ms. Virginia.

"Oh, whatever. . . what are you gonna do, just sit there?"

"I ain't got much to go on, ma'am.  I mean, where do I start looking?  Where's this key you're talking about?"

"Well, I don't know!  You're the investigator. That's why I called you."

"I'll have a look at this old house again, see what I can find."

"You do that.  You just do that.  Look for the key, Jimmy."

Oh, what's the use, thought Jack.  She'll never get it right.  He stood up slowly from where he crouched, extended his hand, and shook Ms. Virginia's doughy white hand.

"I'll be seeing you."

"Let me know what you find."

"I will.  You can bet on that."


Sheriff Daly bumped along a rutted road leading down to the Shepherd house.  The road was overgrown and barely passable, tree branches overhanging the road, Spanish Moss hanging down and dragging the top of his car.  It was ridiculous, he knew, a wild goose chase.  Gurney had likely run off to the next county, tired of living with the old lady and being subjected to her eccentricities. It was no kind of life for a kid.

As for a magic key, Jack just shook his head, mumbling "crazy ol' fool," wondering why he even listened to her delusions.  Hardening of the arteries had done got to her, he suspected.

He was here.  The old clapboard house was leaning, like some kind of Suess house, the porch rotted through, a tree growing up through a gaping hole.  It was slowly going back to nature, back to the forest it was.

"Probably a mess of snakes up in there," said Jack to himself.  "Just my luck I'll get bit and die out here."

He gingerly stepped on the porch, testing the flooring before each step.  Looking down, he glimpsed a glint of something shiny in the corner of his eye.  "Well, I'll be. . .

He stooped down and picked up a key, a key that looked as new as one fresh from the hardware store.  Other than that, it looked pretty ordinary, emblazoned with the word "SARGENT" on the side.  Jack turned it over and over.  "Don't feel magic,' he said aloud, still a skeptic.

Pulling back the screen door, he tried the key in the lock, and it slipped right in.  Jack paused a moment, hesitating, before turning the key and cracking open the door, and stepping in.


They found Jack's car later that week.  Junior said he figured the Sheriff was sick when he didn't come in.  Finally, he went out looking for him.

Ms. Virginia said what got Gurney got him too.

But all Junior found was a musty smelling old house, empty, rat-infested, and falling down.  No spooks.  And certainly no magic key.

Thirty years later they put a golf course on Ms. Virginia's old land.  Tore down the house.  But they never could get any grass to grow where it'd been.  Put a sand trap there.  They said if  your ball went in there it'd never come out.

Gurney never did come home.  Somebody said he joined the circus.  But I think he's still out there, trying to get home.

[My daughter found an old key and asked me to write a story about it.  So I did.]

Why I Am Particular

Char-grill_07 "At the risk of approaching a definition, a bohemian conservative believes humans ought to appreciate, live amidst, and even love the eccentric particularity of physical nature, of distinctive persons, of local culture, of odd traditions that reach back before memory, and more generally of the person rooted in time and place–a historical expression as unique as the proverbial snowflake.  The bohemian conservative appreciates less the abstract beauty of the woman on the billboard and more the peculiar beauty of the woman who works at the diner.  The bohemian conservative does not love the individualist as much as the eccentric person who is rooted in cultural soil unprocessed by sanitizing consumerism.  The bohemian conservative admires the unique and peculiar over the abstracted perfection of a universal form."

(Ted V. McAllister, in "The Strange Lament of a Bohemian Conservative")

I regularly have to ask forgiveness for being contrarian just to be contrarian, for disliking what everyone else likes, for going to the movies when no one else goes, for eating at restaurants that not many other people seem to know about, for not reading a book that everyone else likes, and so on.  Sometimes I just get an attitude.

But if I'm particular about the particulars of place and time and space,  I like to think it's based on a principle, one that is creational.  God made a world of diversity, not uniformity, created man and woman, not woman and woman, made all different kinds of plants and animals to be named, not one kind of plant and one kind of animal.  You might even say that the Trinity itself is the root of it all, a wonderful particularity in the midst of unity.  As summarized in many confessions, Father, Son, and Spirit are of one substance yet remain three distinct persons.  Trinity and Creation thus compel me to regard particularity, in all its forms, as normative, as God's will for the world.

But that's enough theology.  It just comforts me to know sometimes that there is some authority behind what I want to do.

I like Char-Grill for burgers, not McDonalds, because it's particular, only here, unknown much beyond the borders of Wake County.

In Wrightsville Beach, I always buy my gas at Tom and Nancy's gas station, because I like seeing a husband and wife run a business together, because they always come out and greet me as I pump gas, and because they sound like they're from the place where they live and do business, and because I can't find them anywhere else.

When I visit a city, town, or region, I want to do what the people that live and work and eat in that region do. I don't want to eat at Chilis, but Jacksons.  I want to walk down the streets of Boston, with all their Boston-sounding names.  I want to hear some local music.  I want to know what's interesting about this place.

And I certainly don't want to watch Western TV shows in Kaihura, Uganda, even if I can, but prefer a place fairly untouched by the "sanitizing consumerism" under which we labor.

My teenagers don't understand this.  They love what they love and have little time for the unpredictability of a local restaurant, of the unknown, for the quaint eccentricities of place.  I don't even remember being that way.  The most wonderful thing for me is an open road, a new place, and someone to share it with.  Picture this:  On midnight of the day I turned 16, armed with my learner's permit and a friend three months older with a license, I drove all night over four counties, stopping at corner stores, restaurants, and by the sides of the road (to soak up place and freedom, of course).  Why?  Because I wanted to see particular things, to experience something different than where I lived. Because I could.

And another thing: When I'm 75 and, God willing, looking across the room at my wife, she'll still be particular to me and profoundly mysterious, like everything that God thought up and made. Like those roadside stores and diners I saw at 16, like Tom and Nancy, like the stories my aunt tells of another time, like the cats that walk the halls of our home and curl at our feet, like that particular tree on that particular road on my way to work, like everyone I ever knew.

Jesus was a particular man.  So am I.